Christopher Nolan’s latest outing is a thought-provoking exploration of the complex motivations and inner conflicts that shaped Oppenheimer’s role in history, shedding light on the profound impact of his work on both global politics and humanity as a whole. It is a biographical drama that explores the life of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), referred to as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” The film follows the developments leading up to and following the world’s first nuclear test, known as “Trinity,” conducted by the titular character for the US Army.
Oppenheimer’s most significant discovery — the development of the atomic bomb — earned him both fame and notoriety. Despite his obvious brilliance, his lack of experience in the real world ultimately led to his failure. With a fresh viewpoint on the persona of the protagonist, Christopher Nolan delves into the complexities of passion and sorrow and skillfully explores the depths of human emotions. He brilliantly captures the spirit of discontent through complex plotlines, thought-provoking narratives, captivating viewers and inspiring reflection long after the credits have rolled.
The screenplay written by Nolan is based on the biography American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The film starts in Germany tracking the academic journey of the brilliant yet paradoxically mathematically challenged physicist. But despite his mathematical struggles, Oppenheimer begins his groundbreaking work in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics when he returns to the United States.
Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), a lieutenant general in the US army, approaches Oppenheimer to seek his assistance in developing the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, however, decides to join the Manhattan Project after giving it careful thought. He also takes measures to stop the Nazi regime in Germany from obtaining this deadly technology. US President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) decides to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World War II wrecks havoc. Oppenheimer confronts Truman after being horrified by the massive destruction brought on by these bombings.
In the years that follow, Oppenheimer becomes a vocal opponent of further nuclear research, particularly the development of the hydrogen bomb. However, in the tense context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, his position became a source of contention for the US administration.
Oppenheimer has the kind of energy that is both perplexing and maddening. Over the years, Nolan has earned the reputation of a master filmmaker who can puzzle us with his expertise in shuffling timelines within a narrative. Oppenheimer is no exception, as he juxtaposes the story into various timelines that alternate between mesmerizing color and black-and-white. This allows the viewer to identify key arcs in the plot development. At times, the debates between government officials and scientists are too technical and perplexing. But they make sense because they are brimming with details that have been simplified for the convenience of the viewers.
The brilliance of the screenplay lies in depicting how Oppenheimer not only oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, but also made sure that it was successfully used. The film explores the moral conundrum that Oppenheimer and his team faced as they tried to come to terms with the destructive power and consequences of their invention on humanity. Such precision makes the film a heartfelt and complex tale of personal accountability and the imperativeness of our choices.
Oppenheimer’s inner conflict is expertly captured in scenes when he gets into heated arguments with his colleagues and struggles to justify his actions after the destruction caused by the bomb. His struggle intensifies as the story progresses, sparking an intriguing investigation of how capable humans are of both creation and destruction. Nolan’s portrayal of Oppenheimer serves as a powerful reminder of the complex ramifications of scientific achievements, highlighting the thin line between development and destruction.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s engrossing cinematography heightens suspense, giving us a sense of involvement in one of the darkest tales in human history. The larger-than-life frames expertly capture the contrasting landscapes, creating a sense of awe and wonder. Fantastic performances are captured with exacting attention to detail, adding a layer of authenticity. Sharp explosions and unsettling echoes in Randy Torres’ powerful sound design add to the uneasy atmosphere. The deliberate use of silence in certain moments creates palpable tension, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats as they anticipate the next explosive moment.
The dynamic aural space of the film is wonderfully complemented by Ludwig Göransson’s score, which elevates the overall cinematic experience. In addition to offering a distinctive narrative framework, Jennifer Lame’s deft editing adds to the story’s emotional impact. She depicts the intricacy and ethical quandaries underlying the development of such a devastating weapon by skillfully fusing past and present. The outcome is an engaging and thought-provoking event that has a lasting impact.
Cillian Murphy conveys Oppenheimer’s inner turmoil and conflicting feelings with poignant authenticity. He immerses the audience in the character’s journey through subtle nuances and an impactful delivery. Supporting actors, Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr. are all top-notch. Matt Damon, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh are a dynamic, engaging ensemble. They truly bring the story to life.
Oppenheimer delves deep into the limitations of human morality and the implications of technological advancements through its compelling tale and outstanding performances. Nolan’s painstaking attention to detail and ability to create an immersive cinematic experience offers a thought-provoking commentary on the socio-political landscape, making it a captivating watch despite its imperfections. The film’s examination of the moral quandaries created by scientific progress serves as a gripping reminder of the risks involved with human desire, making it one of the best films of the year.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.